Andrew Ryce talks to the artists behind the influential label as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Flipping through the label's catalogue is like a digging through the annals of experimental music in the last 25 years. Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven!. Stars Of The Lid's And Their Refinement Of The Decline. Loscil's First Narrows. Low's Things We Lost In The Fire. Grouper's The Man Who Died In His Boat. Keith Fullerton Whitman's Playthroughs. Windy & Carl's Consciousness. Tim Hecker's Harmony In Ultraviolet or Ravedeath, 1972. The label has released more than 200 records. With newer signings like MJ Guider, FORMA and Saloli, it remains a driving force for contemporary experimental and electronic music.
Kranky is independent and old-school, adhering to the strictures of a DIY indie rock label from the early '90s. They let artists do whatever they want without interfering, and they almost never run ads—one of the last they ran simply featured the logo and the text, "Heads down, blinders on." There are no long-term plans for aesthetic guidelines. Instead, Kranky operates on the whims and mores of Joel Leoschke, a no-nonsense, almost monastic Midwesterner who has run the label from Chicago since 1993.
Leoschke is loath to try and describe any sound or feeling the label might have. So we asked some of the people around him what they thought. "It's mood and temperament," said MJ Guider, a New Orleans-based composer of ethereal, electronic pop who debuted on Kranky in 2016. "There are so many different styles, but it's all very introspective and heady, very comforting but very alien at the same time."
"It's a single-minded curation that comes from Joel's gut feeling," said Christina Vantzou, who makes beguiling electroacoustic music. "Even if Joel wouldn't be able to formulate a sentence that encapsulates the vision of the label, he's still made all the choices." Scott Morgan, AKA Loscil, put it this way: "Joel picks things honestly, things that he really he likes. It's not always strategic. There's no hype machine guiding things, and he consciously avoids signing things that you might think should be on the label. That's what makes all the music fit together—its uniqueness."
"There's a lot of difference in the sameness," said Brian McBride from Stars Of The Lid. Tim Hecker compared Kranky to the independent book publisher Verso, where the only thing you can predict is a certain level of quality.
When Leoschke sat down on a recent visit to Los Angeles he was affable but severe, cracking what seemed to be jokes and then questioning me for laughing. Leoschke is intensely passionate and dead serious about music and also professionalism. He's said that the record labels he looked up to the most were the ones who paid the artists on time. He told me that transparency was one of the most vital aspects of how Kranky works. (Almost every artist I spoke to mentioned how reliable and fair the label was.) But for a label so obsessed with running itself correctly, Kranky has an air of spontaneity to it. Things tend to happen almost accidentally—even the release that started it all in 1993, from Labradford.
"[Cofounder] Bruce Adams and I kept making half-serious jokes about starting a record label," Leoschke told me. At the time, the two were working at the "bottom rung" of a music distributor in Illinois. "Then Labradford's first 7-inch came across the music buyer's desk. It was completely out of leftfield, unlike anything else going on then. The vocals weren't clear, it was droney. It wasn't an attempt to be commercial in any way."
Leoschke and Adams contacted the band, who were based in Richmond, Virginia, and signed their first LP, Prazision, on the spot. It's about as close to a blueprint for Kranky as you could get: the barely-there vocals, the dirge-like instrumentation streaked with melody, the stately ambience. It was post-rock before the term was coined, and it still sounds fresh today. Prazision was more successful than the band or Kranky had anticipated, allowing them to soldier on, picking up stranger bands and dipping into more electronic realms, too.
From Prazision onwards, the label started to welcome bands and musicians who made music that sounded hollowed-out: the depressive slowcore of Low, the airy post-rock of Godspeed, or the melted modern classical of artists like Stars Of The Lid and Christina Vantzou. They've become key players in electronic music, with veteran artists like Tim Hecker and Loscil alongside newer signings Earthen Sea, Dedekind Cut and kosmische worshippers FORMA.
"Kranky tries to fill a void within a certain parameter," explained Brian Foote, who works on the label with Leoschke from his home studio in Los Angeles. "Take Deerhunter for example. Around that time, there were one million CD-Rs, one million tape labels. Difficult ambient music was being covered by limited editions in the extreme. It was like—what are we not hearing? And what fits the parameters that isn't already represented? Deerhunter was a striking example, and a striking demo, when that came in."
Deerhunter, a psychedelic indie rock band who later signed to 4AD and achieved worldwide popularity, epitomise the serendipity that surrounds the label. Just as Prazision struck an unexpected chord, Deerhunter's first album for Kranky, Cryptograms, was a runaway success that stood out from the other releases of 2007 but still made sense. Deerhunter helped drive the label into another era of success, and introduced Kranky to a younger audience, a process that seems to repeat every few years. After Deerhunter there was the transportive drone-folk of Grouper. This year, there's a handful of new artists, as well as Tim Hecker, who Kranky welcomed back into the fold after his stint with 4AD.
"Kranky has magical timing, having the right thing happen at the right time," said Christina Vantzou. "Every few years when you think, 'How are they surviving?' Something like Deerhunter comes out that just lands in their hands at the right time. The label is an admirable example of what's possible despite the obvious pitfalls of trying to do what they want to do."
Leoschke also used the word "surviving" when I asked him about the label's biggest accomplishment. And though Kranky has been quick to adapt to streaming and the resurgence of vinyl—they're currently in the midst of reissuing previously CD-only albums on vinyl because "music should be available," in Foote's words—not much has changed in 25 years. Kranky is doing a rare tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary, a massive accomplishment for any record label. But Leoschke doesn't have time to look back, because he's always looking forward. Heads down, blinders on.
We spoke with some of the artists who have helped define Kranky.